Film Feature: The Best Supporting Performances of 2013

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A divorced father looking for new love, a woman dealing with a relationship that turned from romance to routine years ago, a charismatic drug dealer who spies something new in his web, half of the most fascinating cinematic relationship of the year, and a slave & her brutal owner — 2013 featured numerous memorable performances but these are just a few of the ones that will stand the test of time.

It was difficult to whittle down to my 20 favorite. Sorry to those who missed the cut. These are simply my 20 favorites today (and come back tomorrow the accompanying lead performances, and Monday for the best films of the year.)

The Best Supporting Actors of 2013

Five Runner-ups (in alphabetical order): Will Forte (“Nebraska”), Jared Leto (“Dallas Buyers Club”), Jeremy Renner (“American Hustle”), Sam Rockwell (“The Way Way Back”), and Keith Stanfield (“Short Term 12”).

Barkhad Abdi as Muse in “Captain Phillips”

Barkhad Abdi as Muse in Captain Phillips
Barkhad Abdi as Muse in Captain Phillips
Photo credit: Sony

Tom Hanks is earning a lot of deserved praise for his work in this harrowing true story but the film doesn’t click without Barkhad Abdi’s supporting turn to anchor its household name. Abdi infuses his Somali pirate Muse with such relatable desperation, refusing to portray him purely as the one-sided villain he could have become. We understand more about why people commit such heinous acts as taking other men hostage when we look in Muse’s eyes. With a combination of fear and blind hope that this hijacking will still somehow lead to a better life, Abdi captures more truth about the part of the world from which he comes than any documentary could convey.

Michael Fassbender as Edwin Epps in “12 Years a Slave”

Michael Fassbender as Edwin Epps in 12 Years a Slave
Michael Fassbender as Edwin Epps in 12 Years a Slave
Photo credit: Fox Searchlight

Terrifying. That’s the word I think of when I envision Michael Fassbender’s performance in Steve McQueen’s “12 Years a Slave.” Edwin Epps is terrifying. He is a sociopath, a man so deep down the rabbit hole of his own power-mad insecurity that he takes out his loathsome misanthropy on the most innocent around him. He is the darkest vision of slave ownership we have yet seen on film. Fassbender, once again, makes such smart decisions to define him as more than a monster. Movie monsters are easy to dismiss. We can ignore them. We can put them away as film creations. Edwin Epps is terrifying because he is no mere film creation. Michael Fassbender finds the realism at the cold heart of this maniac. And that’s what makes him terrifying.

James Gandolfini as Albert in “Enough Said”

James Gandolfini as Albert in Enough Said
James Gandolfini as Albert in Enough Said
Photo credit: Fox Searchlight

Has there been a more bittersweet performance than James Gandolfini’s in Nicole Holofcener’s lovely romantic comedy in years? In his very first scene, we meet Albert at a party, and it’s like seeing an old friend again, and we know our time with him is all-too-short. And yet don’t think for a second that Gandolfini is only being cited for this work because he tragically passed. He would be on this list if he were still alive. He makes Albert three-dimensional by making him feel so real. The nerves he shows in his body language on that first date, the apprehension at their first kiss, the disappointment when his heart is broken — Gandolfini does what SO few do in the romantic comedy genre: He makes his character feel genuine enough that we root for him to find happiness. It’s only bittersweet that we won’t be able to do it again.

Matthew McConaughey as Mud in “Mud”

Matthew McConaughey as Mud in Mud
Matthew McConaughey as Mud in Mud
Photo credit: Lionsgate

What a turn Matthew McConaughey has taken in the last few years. Just four years ago, he appeared in “Ghosts of Girlfriends Past”, a loathsome romantic comedy with Jennifer Garner. The two appeared together again this year in a surefire Oscar nominee, “Dallas Buyers Club,” just the latest in a string of acclaimed roles for the actor who was once a bongo-playing punchline. I like his work in “Dallas” (and brief turn in “The Wolf of Wall Street”) but my favorite performance from McConaughey this year was in Jeff Nichols’ fantastic “Mud.” The actor turns the title character into a charismatic enigma. Mud needs to be both dangerous and intriguing enough that we believe a young man like Tye Sheridan’s Ellis would be drawn to him. McConaughey actually does incredibly subtle work here, especially given the role’s inherent opportunity to over-act. Mud is one of the few characters from this year that I’m sure will be remembered for some time to come and it’s thanks to the decisions made by the man who has gone from a rom-com staple to one of our best working actors.

The Best Supporting Actor of 2013: James Franco as Alien in “Spring Breakers”

James Franco as Alien in Spring Breakers
James Franco as Alien in Spring Breakers
Photo credit: A24

Speaking of memorable characters, there were few that stand out in 2013 as strongly as James Franco’s Alien in Harmony Korine’s “Spring Breakers.” Why was Alien so special? Couldn’t anyone have played this over-the-top, borderline lunatic who bounces on his bed with a wall of assault rifles behind him, imploring you to “look at his sh*t”? Hell no. What Franco gets here is that Alien needs to be a finely-balanced character for the film to work even in the slightest. The fine line between being too menacing to engage the audience and being too cartoonish to be real is walked expertly by Franco. Alien lives up to his name, being something that we’ve never seen before, to the degree that we believe that the four girls who cross his path would be as fascinated by staying in his world as we are. He’s crazy enough to convey real danger but magnetic enough to make us want to see what he does next. He’s unforgettable.

On to page two for the best supporting actresses…

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